Presidential historian says great leaders put purpose over power

May 1, 2017


In a year in which the 2017 Catholic Health Assembly has chosen "building bridges" as its theme, the new American president continues to tout his campaign pledge to build walls — both literally and through executive order — to secure our borders.

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Though his populist message may seem unprecedented, it takes a renowned narrative historian like Doris Kearns Goodwin, a keynote speaker for the June 11-13 meeting in New Orleans, to provide the current political climate with context.

Much of the polarization we see today, she says, is an echo of what the nation experienced at the turn of the 20th century, as the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era.

"The anxiety many people feel now is caused by the same pressures that made people nervous about an America that was changing then," she says. "Automation was redefining the workplace. Eastern European immigration was accelerating. The pace of life was quickening due to inventions like the telephone and telegraph. There was distrust between rural farmers and city dwellers. The gap between the rich and poor was growing, and the middle class was feeling squeezed."

What gives Goodwin hope that the country will ultimately find bridges preferable to walls is, once again, history.

"Demagoguery at that time was overcome by the good, forward-looking movement of progressivism, and President (Theodore) Roosevelt was able to mobilize that energy to cross class lines and make positive changes, such as better wages for factory workers," she says.

That kind of energy already may be bubbling up again now, Goodwin adds. The post-inauguration Women's March, the demonstrations against immigration restrictions and the town hall protests over repeal of the Affordable Care Act are all evidence of the galvanizing effects of policies that turn people into citizens, rather than spectators, of democracy. The challenge, she says, will be to channel that movement into leadership.

Resilience and leadership
Leadership — specifically presidential leadership — is something Goodwin, 74, of Concord, Mass., is studying deeply now. Four of her six critically acclaimed, best-selling books focus on presidential administrations: Lyndon Johnson and The American Dream (1976); Pulitzer Prize winner No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1995); Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005); and The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013).

By analyzing the innate characteristics of what she calls "her guys" — Lincoln, TR, FDR and LBJ — and the events that shaped their lives, Goodwin's next book will focus on their traits and political skills that led to great leadership.

One common attribute of all four — and, she believes, of all great leaders — is their ability to overcome adversity. Lincoln's tragic life — including the deaths of two of his young sons and his deep depression — was a study in hard times, she says. Theodore Roosevelt suffered the loss of both his mother and his young wife on the same day, Feb. 14, 1884, in the same house. FDR, of course, contracted polio at age 39 and became paraplegic for the rest of his life. And LBJ experienced a crushing defeat in a U.S. Senate race in 1941, then suffered a severe heart attack in 1955 when he was 47.

"Each of them came through hard times and emerged stronger and more resilient," Goodwin says.

Media and the man
All four also were master communicators, and most were uncannily matched to the popular media of their times. Lincoln was a master of public oratory, and his speeches were printed and distributed by pamphlets to reach the masses. Theodore Roosevelt was able to use the powerful mass circulation newspapers as his bully pulpit. Franklin Roosevelt "weaponized radio" as a tool, Goodwin says, using his fireside chats to have intimate conversations with the American public. While John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan ascended to their presidencies as television presidents — a medium that values appearance — Johnson was able to use his talents as a great storyteller to build consensus in Congress.

"History may show President Obama to be the first to use the Internet to his advantage," says Goodwin. "And President Trump may be our first social media — or at least Twitter — president."

Purpose over power
Most important, though, is the leadership style practiced by Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson — a kind of servant leadership, similar to that preferred by Catholic health care that, she says, "puts purpose over power, collective interest over self-interest, and stresses service to people.

"That is absolutely the standard by which I judge the leadership of these great presidents," says Goodwin. "Lincoln was willing to lose the election of 1864 over emancipation. LBJ's Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his Great Society legislation (which included Medicare and Medicaid) demonstrate his ability to put the needs of the people first too. And President Obama's signature issue — health care — shows his hope of purpose over power as well."

Goodwin, who earned a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University in 1968 — where she taught, among other things, a course on the American presidency for 10 years — has had a ringside seat at many presidential administrations. Beginning in 1967, when she served as a fellow in the Johnson White House and later helped Johnson write his memoirs, she has had the opportunity to become well-acquainted with several presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Throughout the years, she says she has never lost her "sense of wonder" at walking into the White House and talking to a president. She also has learned that while the office doesn't make the man, it can magnify his strengths and weaknesses.

"I've observed that when a person becomes a president, his temperament is already formed. The office simply brings out his best and worst qualities," she says. "Who he surrounds himself with — his inner circle, his cabinet — is really important. He may be a good public speaker or may be able to work well with Congress. But he needs a team to fill in the holes, and how that team works together is critical for his administration's success."


Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.